Washington – Seventy-five years ago today, an inventor named Irving Nachumsohn received a patent for the first commercially successful electric slow cooker.
A few decades later, his device was more than just a beloved accessory in millions of American kitchens. The Crock-Pot was also seen as evidence that consumer goods could no longer be sold just to housewives but also would need to serve the needs of working women as well.
Some credit the Crock-Pot and other home appliances with helping increase the number of women in the workforce.
The history of the slow cooker, whose sales have been booming recently, reflects a still-raging debate about how consumer appliances have changed – and failed to change – the gender balance at home as well as at work.
The Crock-Pot did not liberate women from the social stereotype or common burden of being the one responsible for cooking. Rather, the device, along with countless other home appliances like the washing machine and dryer, has simply made it easier for women to take on work outside the home. A recent government survey showed that in 2013, the average American woman still spent more than two hours a day on household activities, compared to about only an hour and 20 minutes for men. Meanwhile, after a decades-long rise, the percentage of women working has been gradually declining.
“All these appliances are marketed with the promise that they’ll make life so much easier for women, that they’ll save women infinite time. Inevitably those promises never really pan out,” said Amy Bix, a historian at Iowa State University.
Today, slow cookers continue to hold a special place in the homes of many American consumers, though perhaps for different reasons. Sales have nearly doubled since the turn of the millennium. Chefs have penned cookbooks with sophisticated recipes for slowly cooking everything from lamb tagine to cheesecake.
The reasons are varied, analysts say, but the most striking is that men are buying more of them – like the $59.99 Crock-Pot emblazoned with the logo and colours of the Washington Redskins – the result of a deal between manufacturer Jarden and the NFL to market the device to men hoping to cook Chicago-style hot dogs and New Orleans Cajun wings on Game Day. Other reasons, analysts say, include more people cooking at home in a weak economy and a growing nostalgia for retro goods – plus less time to prepare dinner in today’s hurried schedules.
Nachumsohn, who went by the surname “Naxon,” invented the slow cooker to be able to cook cholent, a traditional stew eaten by Jews in eastern Europe on the Sabbath. Since they were forbidden from cooking, the Jews would bring pots of stew to a nearby bakery the day before. They would cook slowly in the residual heat from the ovens, his daughter Lenore told NPR last year.
“The advent of the slow cooker – it saved the Jewish housewife,” said Laura Frankel, the executive chef in Wolfgang Puck’s kosher division in Chicago and author of “Jewish Slow Cooker Recipes.”
The slow cooker, like other home appliances, relied on the rapid electrification of the country during the first half of the 20th century. Many economists also say they encouraged women to work outside of the home. Single women – and some married women – had long worked as teachers, domestic servants and as factory workers during World War II. With electrification and indoor plumbing, some women had a new choice: They could continue doing the laundry with a washboard and clothes pegs, or they could work and pay for a washer and a dryer in installments. As appliances became available at lower prices, the second option took less and less of a woman’s time.
Some researchers have found that technology was crucial in allowing women to enter the formal economy. One study by Daniele Coen-Pirani, an economist at the University of Pittsburgh, found that home appliances could account for about 40 percent of the increase in work outside the home among married women during the 1960s.
An examination of data from developed countries found that cheaper home appliances led women to enter the labour force between 1980 and 1994.
Another study found that in South Africa, where about a quarter of the population gained access to the grid between the end of apartheid and 2001, electrification led to significant increases in women’s employment within just a few years. “You can look at countries where some of these technologies have become cheaper, faster. In these countries, you see more of an increase in labor force participation by women,” Coen-Pirani said, adding that it’s also possible, though, that companies began marketing more goods to women as they increasingly took on jobs and had higher incomes.
Some historians, however, see it differently. In 1982, Ruth Schwartz Cowan argued in her classic “More Work for Mother” that technology had simply created new tasks for women. With a washer and dryer, they were expected to do the laundry more regularly, for example. And as cars became more common, they were expected to drive their children from activity to activity.
“The advertising copy said all of these things – the refrigerator, the washing machine, the dryer – were going to revolutionise housework. None of them did,” she said.
Cowan maintains that changes in society’s beliefs and attitudes toward women, not technology, is what led them to work outside of the home. “Married women entered the workforce because they needed to and wanted to, not because they were released from anything in particular in their homes,” she said.
In the early 1970s, the Crock-Pot officially hit stores. Over the following years, the percentage of women working went from 43 percent to 60 percent, fuelled by a range of policies such as the Equal Rights Act, as well as “developments in labour-saving household technology,” White House economists said in a report last year.
In many ways, there was nothing remarkable about the Crock-Pot. People had always cooked things slowly in pots. “The Crock-Pot existed for hundreds of years before it was electrified,” Cowan said. “It was an old idea, electrified.”
Rival, the original manufacturer of the device, had found a new and expanding market. The Crock-Pot was “perfect for working women,” declared a September 25, 1975, advertisement in The Washington Post.
That was the year that Mable Hoffman published “Crockery Cookery.”
With recipes like “Busy Woman’s Roast Chicken,” it sold nearly half a million copies in four months. It was a bestseller for much of the year, along with “The Joy of Sex” by Alex Comfort and the “Star Trek Starfleet Technical Manual,” two other titles that reveal the era’s fascination with technology and with the place of women in society.
It was around then that, for the first time, a majority of white married women in middle age had joined the labour force. The Crock-Pot wasn’t just for working wives, though. Rates of divorce were skyrocketing, too.
“I have come upon an appliance that vindicates technology for the single working parent – the slow-cooking electric pot,” opined one writer in the New York Times in an essay on single motherhood. “You throw in some food before leaving for work (I’ve gotten this down to thirty seconds without breaking stride as I head out the door), turn the knob, and any time from 4 o’clock on, dinner is hot and to be ladled out by your ravenous children.”
Many feminists, however, were as nonplussed by the Crock-Pot and its imitators as they were by other appliances designed to save women time. If women had more time, they worried, they would simply be tasked with more work – whether at home or in the office.
“My position, looking at 16-button blenders, was ‘Heck, no!’ – especially given that the assumption truly was, at that point, that women would be taking on an additional burden,” said historian Susan Strasser, author of “Never Done: A History of American Housework.” “There wasn’t any substantial change at that time in expectations of what men would contribute to the household.”
There may have been other reasons for the Crock-Pot’s explosive popularity. It was introduced during a period of intense inflation in the prices of energy and food. A relatively affordable slow cooker would have allowed families to roast inexpensive cuts of meat to tenderness, while using less energy.
Economic stresses might be one reason for the return of the slow cooker today, suggested Emily Balsamo, an analyst at Euromonitor, a market research firm. She’s skeptical of one Jarden’s newest innovations, a Crock-Pot equipped with a wireless port so that chefs can change the temperature setting remotely when they know they’ll be late for work, because its cost is several times that of the basic model.
Another reason for the return of the slow cooker might be nostalgia. Appliances that many can remember being heralded as marvels of technology are now prized for their old-fashioned look and feel.
“They’re old. They’re retro,”Balsamo said. “That’s the key to their coming back.”
About 3.2 million Crock-Pots were sold in 2005, compared with 4.4 million last year, according to Euromonitor. Jarden controls about a third of the market, which is far more than its largest competitors, the Hamilton Beach and West Bend brands. A recent survey by the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers found that 70 percent of households owned a slow cooker, compared with only 63 percent 10 years ago.
Stephanie O’Dea, who has written several books on slow cooking, suggested that Americans are looking for new ways to cook healthily, without creating too much work for themselves.
“As a mom, I truly relied on this thing to help me get dinner on the table,” O’Dea said of her slow cooker.
As the author of the bestseller “Make It Fast, Cook It Slow,” O’Dea has inherited Hoffman’s title, but her recipes are very different from the ones published in the Crock-Pot’s early years. Those relied on “a can of mushroom soup and a packet of onion soup mix,” O’Dea said. As a result, all slow-cooked food tasted more or less the same, and the older recipes are less useful to a new generation of cooks looking to prepare healthier food with fewer processed ingredients.
Male chefs are likely part of the explanation for the slow cooker’s resurgence as well, O’Dea said. “Men like toys,” she explained.
The partnership with the NFL to introduce team logos on the devices for all 32 teams came in 2012.
“The easy locking lid with rubber gasket allows fans to get to the end zone without the mess. Oversized handles make carrying comfortable and the removable 6-quart stoneware doubles as a serving dish,” the company said in a news release. “And when the party is over, clean up is a snap thanks to the dishwasher safe stoneware and glass lid unit.” Tom Wyrwich, a Seattle lawyer, said he picks up ingredients at his local grocery store every Sunday during the season for pot roast, beef stews or chicken tortilla soup. Before the games start, he chops them up and throws them in his slow cooker.
“I’d much rather cut up food and get a Crock-Pot started than watch any pregame show,” he said. “By the time the morning games and the afternoon games are over, it’s ready to go.”
Will some future cohort of progressive-minded men cooking chilli with grass-fed ground beef in their NFL-themed Crock-Pots one day fulfill the promise of decades of kitchen appliances and help ensure a better balance of housework at home? Based on past experience, it seems misguided to place too much faith in any technology for achieving equality between the genders.
Strasser, the historian, suggested that family-friendly public policies, like family leave or subsidised child care, might be more fruitful.